Disney is not known for heralding directorial authorship, least of all when it comes to animation: try naming the director of The Little Mermaid or even a classic like Dumbo. It’s the corporate brand name that sells the movies. And yet, last year, the company acquired the rights to distribute the entire oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s premier auteur-animator. Miramax will release the director’s latest film, Princess Mononoke, in theaters next year (the movie is second only to Titanic as Japan’s all-time box office champ); the remaining titles will go straight to video in brand-new dubbed versions, starting with this week’s release of 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Born in 1941, Miyazaki is a beloved icon in his home country–though he’s called “the Disney of Japan,” he’s been vocal about his distate of Disney movies. After working on various TV series, he made his directorial feature debut in 1979 with Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, a breathless caper complete with secret stairways, a captive princess, and Indiana Jones-like hijinks. Miyazaki’s artistic breakthrough came in 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, whose title character, the first of the director’s trademark headstrong heroines, leads her village in a battle for ecological survival. In 1986’s Laputa–Castle in the Sky, slated for video release next year, a young girl fights off the factions lusting after her “levitation stone” (flight is a Miyazaki obsession, and there are airborne scenes in all his movies).
My Neighbor Totoro (1988; Fox Video, 1993) may be the director’s best-known film. Two young sisters meet a mythical forest creature who helps them cope with their ailing mother’s absence. Buoyed by Joe Hisaishi’s imaginative score (he also works with Takeshi Kitano), Totoro neatly encapsulates Miyazaki’s main obsessions: the need for balance between man and nature, and the trials of spiritual and moral development.
Though Miyazaki can orchestrate impressively precise action scenes (Kiki’s arrival in the city provokes chaos in the streets; 1992’s philosophical adventure movie, Porco Rosso, includes magnificent aerial dogfights), his movies usually unfurl at a leisurely pace. The director allows for reverie and for a sense of wonder to bloom. Humor, always present, tends to be gentle slapstick, unobtrusively punctuating an otherwise contemplative rhythm.
Drawing thousands of each movie’s animation cells himself, Miyazaki composes every shot with a painter’s eye. Influenced by Jonathan Swift (Laputa–Castle in the Sky is named after a floating island in Gulliver’s Travels), Jules Verne, and Lewis Carroll, he smoothly integrates the fantastical and the mundane. Nobody gets crushed by falling pianos in Miyazaki’s movies (he finds Disney too violent), but cats shaped like buses roam the countryside. A humanist concerned with rites of passage and periods of transition, Miyazaki avoids cheap moral lessons and the safe distance of cynical wisecracks. Being marketed by Disney, in fact, might be the greatest irony in the career of a director who can appeal equally to four-year-olds and admirers of Yasujiro Ozu.